What Will the App Developers Make of This?

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A look at the government's newly released streaming data feeds.

Some federal agencies have gone above and beyond U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel’s May 2012 call to open as much of their data as possible to private sector entrepreneurs, according to a Nextgov analysis . Other agencies have barely met minimum open data requirements.

The government released a catalog last week with more than 400 application programming interfaces, or APIs, that can stream government data directly to an external system such as a website or mobile app. Government APIs can tell the public which hospitals charge the most for a heart procedure, where to find the nearest farmer’s market and how many $2 bills were printed in 2002 . VanRoekel and other technology officials hope entrepreneurs will turn the data into profitable applications just as an earlier generation of entrepreneurs built businesses out of government-furnished Global Positioning System and weather data.

A handful of Cabinet-level agencies are clearly leading the charge on open data. The Health and Human Services Department, for example, has released 61 APIs .

The Homeland Security and State departments, on the other hand, only met the Digital Government Strategy’s minimum requirement to offer two APIs by May 23, 2013.

The Justice Department is the only agency that fell short of the strategy’s two-API mandate, releasing only one API that meets the digital strategy’s definition . Justice released another API that does not appear to offer “machine-to-machine interaction over a network,” per the White House definition. Justice had not responded to a Nextgov request for clarification by Wednesday afternoon.

The Labor Department only released one API, but it connects with multiple data sets, so it meets the spirit if not the letter of the requirement.

Overall about 7 percent of APIs released by Cabinet-level agencies in a catalog last week do not meet the White House definition, either because they do not offer machine-to-machine connections, do not do so yet, or the API URL does not work. VanRoekel acknowledged some of the APIs were still in progress during a conference call with reporters last week but stressed that the majority of newly released government APIs are fully functioning and ready for developers.

Here are some other observations from Nextgov’s analysis of the API catalog:

  • The Health and Human Services, Interior, Energy and Commerce departments are the government’s open data leaders, releasing 61, 30, 19 and 17 functioning APIs respectively.
  • The Justice, State, Homeland Security, Treasury and Housing and Urban Development Department’s brought up the rear with 1, 2, 2, 3 and 4 APIs respectively.
  • Taking up the middle ground were the Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Defense and Transportation departments, which released 6, 7, 8 and 9 APIs respectively. The Executive Office of the President released 4 APIs.
  • About 17 percent of Cabinet-level agency APIs offered the ability to map data using ESRI’s ArcGIS or another mapping platform.
  • Nearly 54 percent of APIs used a RESTful interface, making it easier for outside developers to draw information from them. About 26 percent used a SOAP interface, another time saver for developers that uses the simplified XML computer document system. A handful of APIs used both.
  • Some APIs used older programming languages. Several of them use JAVA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Meteorological Assimilation Data Ingest System API , which streams weather satellite data, allows developers to use FORTRAN coded software, which dates back to the 1950s. That API also allows developers to use more modern computer languages.